Congressional Democrats turned Wednesday to an obscure legislative maneuver in hopes of forcing a vote to raise the minimum wage, saying they have no choice but to embrace the rarely-used tactic in hopes of forcing Republicans to debate the issue.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), center, surrounded by aides. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

President Obama and House and Senate Democrats consider raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour one of their highest legislative priorities of the year. They have been backed in recent weeks by polling showing that more than six in 10 Americans support the move. A vote to increase the minimum wage is expected to occur by the end of March in the Senate, according to Democratic aides, but the issue faces a less certain future in the GOP-controlled House, where leaders have signaled no desire to work with Democrats on major legislation during an election year.

With no control of the House schedule, Democrats formally began collecting signatures Wednesday for a discharge petition, a procedural tactic that allows an absolute majority of the House of Representatives (218 lawmakers) to force a floor vote on a bill, even if leaders who control the House floor oppose the measure. The practice was first introduced in 1910 and has succeeded only seven times in the last three decades, most recently in 2002 when lawmakers forced a vote on a bipartisan campaign finance proposal, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The House Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage already has 190 Democratic co-sponsors, meaning they would need another 28 signatures to force a vote on the measure.

"We're asking for the opportunity to vote on a piece of legislation that 71 percent of the American people support," Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday at an event to formally begin the process.

Citing the same polling data, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said "That 71 percent is made up of Democrats, Republicans, independents, people who know the American dream can be realized when you work hard and get paid."

Three national polls released in January found that at least 71 percent of Americans favored raising the minimum hourly wage to $10.10. A December Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 66 percent of Americans generally supported an increase.

Even if attempts to force a vote on raising the minimum wage fails, Democrats expect that the spectacle of the minority party attempting to hold votes on a proposed legislation backed by a majority of Americans might be enough to turn the tide against House Republicans, who are expected to expand their control of the House in November's elections.

Discussions about filing discharge petitions began this month at the annual House Democratic policy retreat, where leaders asked rank-and-file members to list the issues that they felt might warrant using the procedural tactic. Raising the minimum wage and pushing for new comprehensive immigration reform topped the wish list, according to aides familiar with the talks.

In response, House Democratic leaders are expected to file a similar discharge petition soon to force a vote on a Democratic-backed comprehensive immigration proposal. Once again, Democratic aides expect the effort to fail, but said that the move will give the broad coalition of Hispanic, business, labor, high-tech and religious groups pushing for new immigration laws something to rally around and use to pressure Republicans.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a longtime champion for immigration reform, said using a discharge petition to force the issue would be smart.

"I think all tools that we have we should use," he said.

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